INDIANAPOLIS — Ellen Butz is the kind of swing voter that candidates both fear and covet.
She calls herself a Democrat, but she’s also a fiscal conservative and owner of a small business in the affluent suburban community of Zionsville, where Republicans have a political stronghold.
She voted for Republican Mitch Daniels when he ran for Indiana governor last decade. This time around in the governor’s race, she’s planning on voting for Democrat John Gregg, and she recently held a fund-raiser where both her Democratic and Republican women friends donated to the cause.
“Really, it’s a no-brainer,” she said, when asked how she picked her candidate.
For her, incumbent GOP Gov. Mike Pence has gone too far to the right on social issues since taking office, putting the state in a negative light by opposing same-sex marriage and defending a state “religious freedom” law that critics saw as a license to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
His decision in March to sign a sweeping anti-abortion law — making Indiana the second state in the nation to ban the procedure if sought because of a fetal disability such as Down syndrome — sealed her decision.
At least for now.
“If Pence said, ‘I’m not going to touch the social issues,’ like Mitch Daniels did, that could be a game-changer for me,” she said.
There’s more than five months to go before the election, but women voters like Butz already are playing a key role.
They’re being wooed by Democrat Gregg, who sees Pence’s vulnerability with women voters — vulnerability reflected in recent polls, including one that shows women under the age of 45 want a new governor by a margin of 59 to 21 percent.
Gregg, a former speaker of the Indiana House, has been a conservative on some social issues, but he’s moderated those stances. He opposes abortion personally; and in 2012, he was against same-sex marriage when he ran against Pence the first time.
But he’s changed his position on the latter issue. And he’s said he would have vetoed both the abortion bill this year and the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act that got Pence in trouble with women voters last year.
On the campaign trail, he’s praised Daniels’ 2010 call to fellow Republicans for a “truce” on social issues while the nation was still in dire financial straits.
Those efforts worked with Dr. Kate McHugh, an Indianapolis obstectrician/gynecologist who wrote an essay for the Washington Post, condemning the new abortion law as both bad medicine and an encroachment on women’s legal reproductive rights.
After meeting privately with Gregg, McHugh decided to publicly endorse him.
“No liberal Democrat is going to get elected to the governor’s office in Indiana,” she said.
It’s support Gregg welcomes.
“(John) is going to be focusing on the things that a governor should be focusing on — education, jobs, infrastructure, the environment, and crime,” said campaign spokesman Jeff Harris. “And not on who you sleep with, who you love or what goes on in your doctor’s office.”
Not everyone is convinced that’s enough.
The Rev. Marie Siroky, past president of the Interfaith Coalition on Non-Discrimination, which advocates for LGBT rights, thinks some progressive women voters may sit the race out.
They’re unconvinced that Gregg has done enough to actively oppose the socially conservative legislation that has come out of the Republican-controlled Statehouse.
“We know what we get Mike Pence,” she said. “We don’t know what we get with John Gregg.”
Still, Democrats have some reason to be confident.
A series of public polls over the past year — including two in the past month — show Pence is in trouble with women, especially young women, college-educated women and women voters who call themselves independent.
“I think women voters are going to decide this race,” said Republican political strategist Megan Robertson. “They’re going to determine this election.”
Robertson is part of Enterprise Republicans, which has opposed Pence’s conservative social positions, arguing they’ve hurt the state’s efforts to attract and retain businesses and young talent.
They released a poll last week, conducted by Christine Matthews of Bellwether Research, that shows Pence with a narrow lead over Gregg. Tucked inside those numbers: Women 45 and under — who tend to be more liberal on social issues — strongly disapprove of Pence by a margin of 47 percent to 30 percent.
Similar numbers showed up in April, in the WTHR/Howey Politics Indiana Poll conducted by Republican pollster Gene Ulm of Public Opinion Strategies.
Among female voters, Pence trailed Gregg, 52 percent to 41 percent.
Pence’s supporters are skeptical of the notion that Pence is vulnerable with women. Republican Secretary of State Connie Lawson says she’s seen strong support for him in rural Indiana as she’s traveled the circuit of local Lincoln Day dinners attended by GOP party faithful.
“I don’t see women turning away from him,” she said.
Pence campaign spokesman Marc Lotter said the governor will spend the summer on the campaign trail talking a lot about his record on fiscal issues, including the annual tax-cut bills he’s signed.
“I think you’ll see that resonate with voters across all demographics,” Lotter said.
A series of polls over the past year show Republican Gov. Mike Pence, a social conservative, is losing favor with young voters, women voters, and independent voters. In May, following the contentious presidential primary election, the Washington, D.C.-based Bellwether Research polled 600 registered voters in Indiana. Among the poll’s findings:
• Overall, Pence has a negative job rating with voters, with 40 percent approval and 42 percent disapproval.
• College-educated voters disapprove of Governor Pence’s performance,
• 36 percent approve — 50 percent disapprove, while non-college voters narrowly approve, 42 percent-38 percent.
• Driven by voters under age 45, independents overwhelmingly disapprove of Pence’s performance (31 percent approve — 54 percent disapprove)
• Senior women give the governor a positive 45 percent — 30 percent approval rating. But women under 45 are the opposite, with a 30 percent approve — 47 percent disapprove rating.
• Women under 45 want a new person in the governor’s office by a margin of 59 percent to 21 percent.
Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers.